I have passed Donald Rodney’s work Land of Milk and Honey II many times on my visits to Birmingham Museum and felt incredibly proud to have an artist from the city I grew up and a black artist exhibit in a world class museum. Upon hearing about the possible acquisition of another piece of Rodney’s work, I knew I wanted to attend and have a say about what is in our museums, to see the many different facets of my city represented in our museum. And so I was incredibly excited to be invited to attend a consultation and also to observe the other people attending the consultation. Would they be the usual museum workers and museums goers?
To my absolute joy when I arrived at Birmingham Museum the group of people attending the consultation was a diverse group of individuals consisting of the usual white, middle class museum types and also people who represent the masses of people who rarely set foot in a museum, which made me happier than you can imagine. In fact my mum attended and made a really interesting observation, she (white, middle class) commented that she was in a minority and how strange it felt because she is not in a minority often particularly in this setting, which is interesting, as this is often how I feel as a mixed race person. If museums are going to truly represent the communities in which they reside, it is important to represent the community within the museum, seeing predominately white male art and history is not representative of other equally important histories. And this is what Collecting Birmingham will be addresses through community consultation and understanding what Brummies want in their museum.
We moved from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to Vivid Projects in Digbeth, moving away from the sometimes austere museum surroundings to a more relaxed environment where we shared tea and cake and sat down to discuss the merits of three fantastic pieces of Rodney’s work. The discussion flowed, people’s passion was ignited, and Rodney’s work can do that as it deals with sometimes provocative always emotive subjects. I felt thrilled to experience so much passion surrounding Rodney’s work, and to hear from people who were not part of the usual museum crowd which was invaluable. It would be interesting to discover if the representation or lack thereof of certain groups of our community influences visits to museums and how. If you cannot relate to objects, art, exhibitions, why would you visit?
The Land of Milk and Honey II which is exhibited at Birmingham Museum provoked a fervent discussion focusing in particular on why the piece had not been exhibited for 10 years which meant we lost observing the massive changes of the piece. Pygmalion, the most popular, addressed many issues around skin lightening and body image which the group debated highlighting their own feelings about the piece. The group felt In the Land of My Father was an iconic piece, and I have to agree. However, I also loved the Lightboxes as you can see at first glance what they are depicting, and they have a really strong message also.
I thoroughly relished the opportunity to participate in the selection of a piece of Donald Rodney’s work and feel encouraged by the moves Birmingham Museum towards community consultation and representation. I hope that this is a model adopted further afield and evokes real change within the sector.